Leelanau News and Events

Northport Approves Leelanau's First 'Social District'

By Art Bukowski | March 20, 2024

Northport will implement Leelanau County’s first “social district,” allowing people to take alcoholic beverages bought in bars or restaurants and drink them in outdoor areas.

The village council unanimously approved the move Thursday, and village manager Jim Dyer will now work to implement the district by summer, pending final approval from state regulators. The district will cover all of downtown Northport.

State officials created the framework for social districts during the COVID pandemic, when restaurants and bars were feeling the pinch from reduced customers. The idea was to facilitate social distancing by allowing people to spread out with their drinks.

But the concept has gained momentum in the wake of the pandemic as communities have found these districts are a great tool to attract people and support businesses. State records show that more than 100 such districts are now active across the state. In northwest Michigan, they exist in Manistee, Petoskey, Grayling, Gaylord, Cadillac and Central Lake.

Multiple Northport businesses advocated for the social district, as evidenced by letters to the council. Daniel Caudill, a Northport resident, business owner and president of the Northport Omena Chamber of Commerce, wrote that the “benefits of implementing a social district in Northport are numerous and far-reaching.”

“Not only would it set us apart as a unique destination in the area, attracting visitors to our village, but it would also enable existing businesses to maximize their potential during peak seasons without the need for extensive hiring,” he wrote. “Additionally, it presents an opportunity to activate outdoor spaces…”

Village President Chris McCann hopes the district will be a great way to support businesses by drawing people to Northport, which unlike Suttons Bay or other municipalities doesn’t benefit from a ton of pass-through traffic.

“With Northport’s location, we’re sort of at the end of the road,” he tells The Ticker. “We’re looking for unique opportunities to put Northport on the map for people, and this is an opportunity for something to happen in Northport that we don’t see happening in our county (already).”

Dyer tells The Ticker that “quite a few” area residents are opposed to creating a social district in Northport, largely due to fears of drunken debauchery. Those worries are unnecessary, Dyer says.

“It’s not going to turn the village of Northport into Animal House,” he says. “People are still required to drink responsibly, they’re still required to purchase their beverages at a place that’s licensed, where they’re monitored for whether they’re too inebriated to be served.”

Plus, Dyer says, people can already go to the grocery store and buy alcoholic beverages and consume them wherever they’d like within the village. This just levels the playing field for bars and restaurants that as of now are required to have the alcohol they serve be consumed on premises.

“A lot of this is happening already, it’s just not happening at the licensed beverage facilities because they’re prohibited from doing it,” he says. “This just takes on-premise (operations) and treats them the same way as Deep’s store or Tom’s.”

Finally, Dyer says, dozens of communities have already implemented these districts and found them to be beneficial.

"It's not like we're making this up," he says. "This is something where there's a state statute that says this is what you can do and this is how you can do it."

Designated plastic cups that display the bar or restaurant name will be used for outdoor consumption, according to the plan.

Ultimately, Dyer says, it will be very easy for the village to change course if it’s determined that a social district is not a good fit for Northport.

“If we end up encountering considerable problems with this social district, we can revoke it,” he says. “This is something that can be modified or withdrawn by a vote of the village council.”

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